WHEN he returned to Australia in 1971, Peter Allen would have been forgiven for wondering if his career in show business was over. But an unexpected piece of family history became the inspiration this boy from the bush needed to succeed on the world stage.
It had been a very long journey home for the ‘Boy From Oz’. Work offers were getting scarce for Peter Allen by the early 1970s. His mentor Judy Garland, who’d opened doors on both sides of the Atlantic for the young performer, was dead. His wife, Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli, had asked for a divorce.
Allen had been performing for two decades and was at the age when many former child stars find themselves washed up.
His first self-titled album had bombed and gigs to promote it had been hosted by a Manhattan venue known as The Bitter End, which would have seemed terribly ironic to the man who’d been introduced to enormous audiences in the company of iconic musicians throughout the late 1960s.
According to Allen’s biographer, journalist Stephen Maclean (author of The Boy From Oz) it was an offer to perform in Australia that led Peter to “look his past in the eye”.
Ensconced at his mother Marion’s Bondi unit in that 1971 winter, Allen spent hours writing on the rooftop overlooking the ocean.
“One day, while Marion was out at work,” Maclean wrote, “Peter found himself fossicking about the flat. In the course of this he came upon an aged newspaper clipping from his near-forgotten birthplace of Tenterfield.”
The snippet recorded that Peter’s grandfather George Woolnough, whose High Street saddlery was already renowned, had a library at the University of New England named after him.
Memories came rushing at the 27-year-old performer. Key to his life experience to that point was the shooting suicide of his father and the grief that led to his immediate family’s gradual departure from the Australian bush. The fast-paced city had been Peter’s home since the mid 1960s, but his country roots held the seeds of an idea for this budding songwriter.
Emboldened by his modest start in New York, Peter Allen took this family history up to that Bondi rooftop and penned a new song.
‘Tenterfield Saddler’ was the result, a ballad that has bridged Australian bush poetry and international show-business ever since he recorded it in 1972.
‘Applause rolled on and on’
Mixing lyrical rhymes in a tale about long journeys down a country track replete with kangaroos and cockatoos, ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ is every inch a bush ballad in the tradition of Banjo Paterson.
It brings to the fore a lesser-known character in the cast of bush legends: the saddler, responsible for the safety and comfort of your ride, but also a storyteller.
Like all the best bush yarns, ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ has a dark side. In his grandson’s lyrics, the saddler holds the key to everyday life in a country town, but what the George Woolnough couldn’t give were the reasons his son had died at his own hand.
It is the suicide at the heart of ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ that gives it a place alongside one of Australia’s most enduring ballads ‘Waltzing Matilda’. In that song’s climax, the hero of the story, a swagman, drowns himself to avoid capture for sheep rustling.
When Allen recorded his song for the 1972 album of the same name, it made a small splash in the American music industry. But what this quirky ballad did, according to Stephen Maclean, was get Peter Allen noticed as a songwriter.
After a move to California in the early 1970s, despite having the barest of credentials, Peter Allen kept penning songs. He worked hard at his craft with other emerging writers and allowed his work to be recorded by artists on the brink of bigger singing careers.
In 1974, he eventually landed a hit when Olivia Newton-John released ‘I Honestly Love You’, co-written with Jeff Barry.
When he first performed the song live, long before Newton-John’s international number one single, Peter Allen recalled: “Everything stopped. Even the waiters didn’t move. The air was still and when I finished you could have heard a pin drop. Then they all began to applaud and the applause rolled on and on.”
Peter Allen went on to write with a range of collaborators, including Carol Bayer Sager. The two were part of the team that won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Original Song with ‘Arthur’s Theme’ from the soundtrack of the Dudley Moore film Arthur.
But Allen’s bush ballad ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ eventually took its place in the annals of songwriting. As Peter Allen’s fame saw him tour internationally, it became an audience favourite and graced the Australian charts multiple times. Bette Midler famously requested it every time she saw him perform.
And songs about travelling became a Peter Allen hallmark. By the time of his enduring 1980 ballad ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ the boy from the bush was embraced by a nation.
A quiet country town took its place in popular culture when the song ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ hit the world stage. Now, this northern NSW destination is set to celebrate its Oscar-winning son at an annual festival, starting this September.
According to festival co-directors Josh Moylan and Matt Sing, the idea of celebrating the life and music of Peter Allen and the town of his birth has always been of interest to Tenterfield locals.
“There have previously been a couple of concerts and tributes to the great man, but never a festival dedicated to him,” Mr Moylan said.
“A couple of years ago during a community discussion, there was a push for a regional arts festival in Peter’s name as a gift to the iconic entertainer.”
The new event has taken approximately 18 months of collaboration between the Tenterfield Chamber of Tourism, Industry and Business, the Tenterfield Shire Council and the Tenterfield community, Moylan and Sing said.
The pair also report that support for the event is widespread. “The response and feedback from the locals has been fantastic!” Mr Moylan said.
“We already have a few motels booked out for the weekend, with many other rooms disappearing quickly! There are also many businesses and groups hard at work preparing for how they can add to the celebration.
“This is our inaugural festival, so we want visitors to be blown away by the events, activities and our unique town.”
A Peter Allen tribute concert will headline the event. ‘Tenterfield to Rio’ is written and performed by award-winning entertainer Danny Elliott.
“We are also hosting the ‘Tenterfield Jam Session’, a concert showcasing the amazing talent of Tenterfield musicians, celebrating all-Australian music,” Mr Moylan said.
On Saturday, September 8, the main strip of Tenterfield will be closed and re-named Peter Allen Boulevard for a street party with markets, food stalls, family activities and entertainment. There will also be many satellite events including breakfasts, dinners and tours.
“Visitors in 2018 will be able to join us for what will be the first year of a spectacular regional arts festival.
“They will get a taste of Tenterfield, our arts and music scene,” Mr Moylan said.
Incredible life story
According to the festival co-directors, visitors will also gain insight into the town that impacted the life and music of one of Australia’s greatest performers, and sense what it was like for a young boy with grand ambitions in entertainment to walk the streets of a small country town.
In addition, one of the major aims of the Peter Allen Festival is to platform the work of new talent.
“A young local performer might realise that they too can have ambition to take on the whole world,” Mr Sing said.
Moylan and Sing are keen to underline that Peter Allen’s story encompassed both his major life achievements and his ability to overcome trying circumstances, something that was reflected in his songs.
“What persists throughout Peter’s struggles and successes is that happy, bubbly, energetic and kind demeanour,” Mr Sing said.
“His closest friends and people who knew him or worked with him describe his two traits that never changed: his incredible energy and enthusiasm; and his genuine, kind and loving personality.
“The greatest reason that Peter is known to us, both then and now, is his incredible ability to write great, meaningful and well-loved songs.
“Peter had great skills in encapsulating a story. Each line in his songs had meaning. He would write wonderfully complex and catchy melodies, and would weave the lyrics and melody together to create art.
“He would then deliver it onstage with all his energy and enthusiasm, which would move audiences all over the world,” Mr Sing said.
“To this day his songs remain icons. One of the great examples of this is ‘Tenterfield Saddler’, a song full of meaning that was a gift from Peter to the town where he shared so many childhood memories.”
The Peter Allen Festival is already planning events beyond 2018, with the aim of fostering existing local groups and industries.
“The 2019 festival will build on this year’s event, introducing workshops held all year in craft, music and entertainment, event organising, sound and lighting,” Mr Moylan said.
“A flagship festival is planned for 2020. We aim to bring a major headline act with a connection to Peter Allen to Tenterfield.”
The Peter Allen Festival September 7-9, 2018.